Between corpulence and corruption
ACCORD-ING to former US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, most of America's social problems stem from affluence, not poverty. He was referring to obesity that rivals smoking as the largest cause of premature deaths amongst the Americans. That tells us that someday we might be looking at pictures of extremely obese people from affluent nations with the same astonishment as we did roughly a decade ago at grossly emaciated children from famine-stricken Africa. While poverty still rages through more than half the population in many countries of the world, affluence itself is turning into a menace.
Just to know what that means, 400,000 people die annually in the United States from obesity, while tobacco kills 435,000, alcohol 85,000, car accidents 43,000 and guns 29,000. That should tell us about the irony of the whole thing. If starvation is s sad thing, gluttony isn't good news either.
Two other news items should puzzle us more. One is that the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has found that as much as $20 trillion may have been stolen by the rich and powerful people from all over the world and stashed away in offshore accounts with reputed banks. The list of plunderers includes French politicians, and wealthy Chinese, Mongolians, Indians, Pakistanis, Russians, Americans, Canadians and Britons. Whether or not their names are on that list, some Bangladeshis certainly have got millions stashed away in foreign banks.
Perhaps one of the many contradictions of this civilisation is that it's utterly debauched behind its genteel façade. But before we delve into that subject, here is yet another news, which, read with the news of obesity, should give us some kind of a shock mixed with pleasant surprise. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has announced that extreme poverty will be wiped out by 2030. It means more people will be able to afford more and the ultimate contradiction is knocking on the door. Overweight will gradually surface as a phenomenon even in the lands of previously malnourished people.
In our part of the world, the subject of poverty hits close to home. Many of us can still recall how starving people once lay on the streets of Dhaka and their lives evaporated like camphor in the sun. We have got vivid memories of hungry children foraging through heaps of rubbish, looking for an orange rind or a banana peel or meat clinging to discarded bones to satisfy their pangs of hunger. Newspapers should be able to recover from their archives the picture of a starving man licking the vomit of another person on the platform of Kamalapur rail station.
Hunger was once a bitter force not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries of the world. Poverty alleviation has largely conquered it and people are no longer dying of starvation in this country. Even though pricey, food is sufficiently available and that availability is now going to become a problem.
Whether it is better to starve or eat to death will soon dominate intellectual discourses. But ICIJ findings give us the alarming news. People across the world are plundering their countries while suited-booted bankers are helping them in their scurrilous mischief. This is where this civilisation fails to correspond with its image. It conveniently defends what it should consciously denounce.
In the ultimate sense, the human body is like a river that shrinks and swells between excessive eating and starvation. At the same time, the mind also goes through its contraction and expansion. This is where, besides accumulation of wealth and bank balance, affluence is different from poverty in equal but opposite measure. In poverty, a weak body leads to moral failure. People steal, beg, cheat and sell their bodies when their income or its absence proves inadequate to sustain physical wellbeing.
Affluence operates on an opposite spectrum when the crisis starts with moral turpitude before it gets to physical failure. French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon observed in the 19th century that property is theft. Thus, the source of one man's fortune is always another man's misfortune; one man's gain is another man's loss. Obesity is but a terminal manifestation of that disturbing process.
In Goethe's Faust, the protagonist wagers his soul with a devil named Mephistopheles. The myth has it that anything King Midas touched turned into gold, including his food and drink. Between these two stories lies the whole gamut of human follies leading to limitless pursuit of wealth.
Mahatma Gandhi believed fasting was an important method of exerting mental control over base desires. He writes in his autobiography that abstention diminishes sensual faculties, bringing the body increasingly under the mind's absolute control. There is an incessant power struggle happening inside each of us. While mind and body fight for control, corpulence is connected with corruption.
The writer is Editor, First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.
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